Kevin Pietersen The irony about Pietersenâ€™s claims to Britishness, about which he seems as sceptical as anyone else, is this: for all the suspicion about the speedy Zola Budd-esque switch, he has proved his commitment to his adoptive country beyond all doubt. There is a grand tradition whereby young British men emerge into the international sporting arena as the finished, world-class article, even as Athena sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus, and then fizzle out. Michael Owen is one leading example, while Wayne Rooneyâ€™s international career seems to be taking the same trajectory of the vertical lift-off swiftly followed by the corkscrew spin down to earth. Andy Murray, it breaks the heart to observe, may be on a similar if less dramatic flightpath. Pietersen, unlike the above, was no teenager when he announced himself as a generational talent in the Ashes series of 2005, though at twenty-five he was still a toddler in Test cricket terms. Whatever the reason for the nationality swap from South African, his debut series was magnificent primarily, though not solely, for his Ashes-winning 158 in the final Test at The Oval. Made under pressure as intense as any cricketer can ever have experienced, it may stand as the greatest maiden century in Test history. England had chanced upon the most naturally gifted attacking batsman in a decade, and his subsequent achievements in becoming the fastest man ever to reach 1,000 and 2,000 oneday runs and to amass 5,000 in Test matches seemed little more than the amuse bouches for a glorious banquet to follow. And then the fizzling began. Half a decade later, he appears to have sacrificed his gifts on the altar of his egomania. Signs of the narcissistic profligacy that 221
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have recently made him a Test match irrelevance, and seen him dropped from the Twenty20 side, to his petulantly Tweeted outrage, were there from the start. Yet the cockiness, the brusqueness, the self-adoration and the thoughtless shot selection (he might have been out seven times en route to that 158) were overlooked, as failings always are in moments of triumph. So was the true motivation for his switch from one country to another. He claimed it was in principled protest at the black and coloured quota system that was keeping him out of the South African team. Those who suspected more mercenary grounds have seen nothing to disabuse them since. Of Pietersen’s short stint as England Test captain, little need be said. If those who appointed him had forgotten the precedent of Ian Botham (see no. 42), and failed to understand that the self-obsessive qualities essential for individual brilliance do not lend themselves to the thoughtfulness required to lead others, that was not Pietersen’s fault. To you and me, it may seem obvious that making your star performer captain is a reliable recipe for a bad captain and an ex-star player desperately out of form. However, you and I tend not to be England selectors or chairmen of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Anyway, just as with Steve McClaren and his England job, you cannot blame a man for failing to know his own limitations. Pietersen’s conceit inevitably led to a personality clash with a coach, Peter Moores, for whom he couldn’t find the strength to disguise his contempt. The two were simultaneously sacked, and that was that. The surprise, to Pietersen’s credit, is that he didn’t walk away from the side in dudgeon, although with hindsight it might have been better for all concerned had he done a Kevin Keegan queeny flounce. What he did instead was throw away the potential to become one of Test cricket’s all-time greats. Watching a man of such preposterous natural talent devote himself to Twenty20 selfenrichment has brought to mind the notion of Van Gogh, at the 222
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height of his powers, anachronistically electing to model his work on that of Jack Vettriano. That Pietersen’s first foray into the Indian Premier League led to the injury that ruled him out of almost the entire Ashes series of 2009 seemed an indecently cute potted commentary on the warped priorities of both him and of cricket itself. He has become a disappointment like few in memory, and an embarrassment to the country he loves so deeply that he left South Africa for its glorification. That, at least, is what he would have us believe. Those who doubt that he’d be on the first plane to Harare with a passport application in his pocket if Robert Mugabe offered him £1 million to become Zimbabwean are directed to an interview he gave GQ magazine not so long ago. ‘Do you get weird fan mail?’ asked the interviewer. ‘Yeah, pictures of girls with their tits out.’ ‘That’s outrageous.’ ‘I know,’ agreed Pietersen with a snigger. ‘But look, it’s your nation, not mine.’ Precisely. Whether Pietersen would have shown more application and commitment had he stayed in South Africa and defied that quota to become a fixture in its Test side we will never know. Perhaps the lure of easy money would have been resistible had he played for a country to which he felt emotionally bonded. More likely, perhaps, contemplating the Olympian self-regard (his interview persona reminds me of Hollywood stars with contractual clauses dictating that no crew member may look them in the eye), he would have succumbed to the temptation of the Indian Premier League all the same. The solitary benefit to emerge from Pietersen’s involvement in that cattle auction has been the most exquisitely perfect nickname in sport. One Indian headline-writer, tiring of him relentlessly throwing away his wicket with insanely stupid strokes in 223
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the cause of personal wealth, called him ‘Dumb Slog Millionaire’. It should be the inscription on his gravestone.
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